Peace and Friendship in Crimea
If you have been following the news you have probably heard a lot about Crimea. I’m guessing that many Americans had (or maybe still have) no idea where Crimea is or why we should care about it.
This has not been the case for me. Whenever I think of Crimea I always think of peace and friendship. Such a sentiment may seem rather odd given the current geo-political strife that is confronting that region of the world. With Vladimir Putin flexing his military muscles and President Obama spewing threatening cease and desist warnings, peace and friendship are not the keywords that one currently associates with Crimea.
My connection to the Crimean peninsula dates back a little over twenty-five years ago when I worked as a camp counselor in the summer of 1988 at Artek. Artek was a famous Young Pioneers camp situated on the Black Sea in the small town of Hurzuf (or Gurzuf as it is sometimes written) just down the road from the historically significant city of Yalta. The camp hosted children from around the world as a way to promote peace, friendship, and intercultural understanding.
My summer adventure in Artek actually began in the winter of 1987 when I participated in a sister-city program and traveled to four cities in the then-Soviet Union: Moscow, Saint Petersburg (which at the time was known as Leningrad), Kiev, and Kisinev. From contacts I made on this trip, I learned about the summer camp at Artek and found out that an American delegation of children was planning to attend the following summer. I sent in my application to be a counselor and much to my delight I was chosen to be one of eight group leaders who would be traveling with over 100 children from the United States.
I had worked at summer camps for a number of years but nothing could prepare me for what I experienced at Artek. Spread over nearly 5 miles along the beautiful Black Sea coast, Artek is actually comprised of ten small camps. Our delegation of 100 was divided into four groups, each being housed in a separate camp with campers from around the world. In my camp, we had kids from Nicaragua, Canada, Finland, India, Vietnam, France, Cuba, Lebanon, Germany, and Burundi. Half of each camp was also comprised of kids from all over the Soviet Union. While most of our day revolved around typical summer camp activities such as playing sports, swimming, singing, and socializing, there were also daily opportunities—both formal and informal—for cross-cultural dialogues and exchanges.
For me, these cross-cultural interactions were one of the highlights of my experience at Artek. Whether it was roof-top discussions with Sandinista kids from Nicaragua, cultural performances by children from Uzbekistan, or political discussions with my fellow counselors, these experiences always resulted in greater understanding and respect among the participants.
I was at Artek when the Cold War was still quite chilly. Although there were some signs of defrosting, and the thaw was completed a few years later, the relationship between the American and Soviet governments was still tense. As a political science and sociology undergrad, I found the political landscape fascinating; however, I was also somewhat perplexed by what I was experiencing at Artek. My political socialization taught me that the Soviet Union was the “evil empire” and that I should be wary of any and all things from this communist superpower.
At Artek, this dualistic or binary way of seeing the world was nowhere to be found. There was no talk of the United States or its allies being evil nor was there talk of the Soviets and their allies being superior. Instead, a genuine sense of harmony and cooperation was emphasized. In fact, the official chant of the camp was Artek! Mir! Druzhba! (Артек! мир! дружба!)—which roughly translates to Artek! Peace! Friendship! I would hear or see these three words everywhere I went.
Photo courtesy of the author
As I follow the current events unfold in Crimea, and with talk increasing each day of a “new Cold War” between Russia and United States, I can’t help but think back to the lessons that were being taught at Artek. It seems tragically ironic that not too far from where armies are drawing lines in the sand and people are choosing sides and loyalties, there is a place where individuals recognize and embrace their commonalties instead of emphasize and exacerbate their differences.
I would love for the major players in the Crimean conflict to take a short bus trip over to Artek and spend a week or so as typical campers. I know this idea sounds naïve and idealistic but there is actually a sociological basis for suggesting it. According to the Thomas Theorem, if people define situations as real they are real in their consequences. In other words, the way in which we define the situation has implications for what we believe and how we behave.
In the case of Crimea, the situation is defined in stark dualistic terms: Russia versus Ukraine, which is really an outgrowth of the larger duality of the U.S./Western influence versus Russian influence. Given this definition, it is not surprising that we see escalating tensions as each side feels it must stay committed to the way they have defined the reality.
Photo courtesy of the author
At Artek, the social landscape was defined quite differently; as a result, there were very different consequences. Instead of promulgating a dualistic sense of reality in which individuals had to pledge their allegiance to one side or another, the idea of interdependence was promoted—both in words and in deeds. There was a sincere feeling among those of us at Artek that peace was possible. Indeed, as the Thomas Theorem suggests, if you spend the summer with people from around the world chanting and singing about peace and friendship then it’s hard not embrace this worldview. As I said, I know what I’m saying may come off as naïve and idealistic but it certainly seems more sane and less frightening then the way the situation is being defined and handled today.